The Adult Student as Your Prospective Employee

David Brooks recently wrote an open letter to employers in the New York Times that profoundly resonated with me. The piece, entitled "The Employer's Creed," is an entreaty to hiring managers to expand their definition of what constitutes success in a prospective employee. He asks that they turn their gazes ever so slightly away from the 3.8 Ivy League GPA, student government presidencies and charity work and to consider seriously those students who have deviated from this somewhat clichéd description of achievement. Brooks goes so far as to suggest that employers seek out prospective employees who have "experienced setback, suffering and recovery," advising them to see these folks as having "learned the lessons that only suffering teaches, and who got back on track."

As a higher education administrator who works with the adult student, this piece touched me so deeply that I nearly wept. It is all too easy, in college admissions, particularly with programs that cater toward adults, to find oneself struck by how different our students can often be from those sought after by the types of employers Brooks is speaking to. The majority of our adult students are with us because -- for whatever reason -- they could not complete their academic journeys when they were traditional college age. Most of them were not all-A students in high school and for those who were, something consequential often interrupted their ability to continue their work toward a college degree.

In the business of adult post-secondary education, we call that interruption "life getting in the way." And instead of feeling as though they have failed somehow, we want our students to be reminded every day that they are accomplishing something monumental by making the decision to return to college, and then matriculating semester by semester until they can cross the stage to a burst of proud applause and claim their degrees.

Many of the qualities that Brooks notes as assets in a prospective employee are present in the adult student simply because it is nearly impossible to avoid meaningful personal growth while navigating the obstacles inherent in pursuing a degree as just one piece of the rest of one's life. Not having the luxury to devote one's entire focus toward school forces a heightened sense of time management and organization. It creates a motivation to compartmentalize wherever possible as a way of feeling productive at the end of a day. It engenders an awareness of the value of breaking up a long-term goal into smaller milestones and then celebrating those milestones in some significant way. It brings about people who have no choice but to learn how to focus in small bursts (in the car while a kid is at band practice) and long ones (on a Sunday afternoon, when the house is completely quiet).

An interesting thing happens with adult students even as they move through their academic programs: They develop a sense of resilience and commitment to an end point that can frequently feel light years away. They learn how to fight through adversity in ways that, rather than diminishing them, make them feel accomplished and strong. Over the course of the often many years it can take to attain a degree, the adult student becomes a survivor. This is the person you want to hire.

At graduation each year, our academic team puts together a presentation for our students that is at once funny and also deeply respectful of what they have achieved. We identify the sacrifices they have made to get to this final point, and even as we are laughing, our eyes are filled with tears, because we know that in the time they were with us, these students experienced the ultimate joys and the most profound sadnesses. Many have given birth to new babies and many have said good-bye to loved ones forever. They have had to make decisions between adding another class to an already busy spring semester and fixing the brakes on their car. When they have let us, we have supported them through academic struggles, financial aid frustrations, serious illnesses, addictions, family crises, house fires, job loss and (well-earned) exhaustion. We honor the fact that these people have held down full-time jobs, cared for family and managed the myriad chaos that is an adult life, and they have emerged on the other side victorious, strong, persistent and most importantly, holding their Associate or Baccalaureate degrees.

As we think about the characteristics Brooks preferences in his description of the "rich, full personalities" of his Employer's Creed, it is impossible not to think of the quintessential adult student. I suppose what touches me so deeply in this piece is the fact that Brooks gives more than a cursory nod to people who are doing things differently, who are deviating -- often in ways they would have never imagined -- from narrow societal definitions of success. He is recognizing achievement comes in a variety of images and that we can only improve our organizational outcomes when we make space for these people. As an employer, you have the power to build a corporate culture that changes people's lives, challenging them to look at the world differently and to come up with new ways of solving problems and moving forward. Those of us working in continuing and adult post-secondary education know our students embody this kind of industriousness and entrepreneurial thinking; there is no way to get through a degree program as an adult and avoid honing these skills. If you are an employer, give them a chance to prove that to you. The likelihood is that you'll be looking for more just like them.

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